Dissecting Deism Past and Present

by Lewis Loflin

Here we will explore deism and get the facts on what it is and is not. The purpose to promote rational religion free of the dogma of various holy books and the sometimes extremism fostered by Enlightenment Humanism. For additional material see Exploring Deism Its Origins and History.

What few people know is there are two deisms, the atheistic and religiously hostile deism of the French Revolution, and the more amicable deism of America and England. They posit two differing worldviews on issues of liberty and tolerance. English Deism and Freemasonry became the foundation of the American Revolution while the Enlightenment French Humanism became the basis of the bloody French Revolution and later Marxism and its offshoots.

Like many I've been a lifelong deist, but never knew what it was called. In the almost 20 plus years of religious study I've found there's no clear definition of deism and it seems more a general academic term for a broad range of beliefs and there is no consensus. There never has been any form of "unified" deism.

This page is here to discuss my views of deism from a traditional viewpoint drawing on Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin including audio and You Tube videos. I won't dwell on endless religion bashing, but will discuss their flaws and history.

One question I'll explore is how does the finding of modern science play into deism and revealed religion in general? Dark matter, earth science, and evolution must make all of us reconsider our views on a lot of things.

What is called radical deism today is better called deistic Humanism. This is a philosophy, not a religion. We find at its head Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, the mass murderer Maximilian Robespierre, and the radical Jacobins. The Humanist French Revolution sought to destroy all traditional European institutions including Christianity, seeking to replace this with "enlightened" philosophy and reason as a basis for society. Oh yes, being led by 'enlightened' despots.

This is understandable in the light of the shear inhumanity displayed by most European governments, nobles, kings, the aristocracy, and the Church acting in partnership. The horrors of endless bloody religious wars were fresh in the minds of so many. In this explosive atmosphere of revolution and pent-up hatred of the masses, Voltaire coins what is often called deism today.

This radical deism did much to undermine revealed religions such as Christianity. The result has not been 'enlightenment' of the masses, but the rise irrationality and secular extremism. Religious wars have been replaced by secular wars (except in the case of political Islam) and secular tyranny replacing religious tyranny.

How did this come about? To quote the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

English Deism entered France, where, however, only its materialistic and revolutionary phases were seized upon, to the exclusion of that religiosity which had never been lost in England (and America). French Deism stood outside of theology...

Their moral theories...lost all connection with the position of Deism, which became for them a mere armory of weapons for the destruction of all religion with its consequences, intolerance and moral corruption. French Deism was anti-religious and shaded into atheism, pantheism, and skepticism.

We can call it what we will be deistic Humanism, French deism, etc. it's not a religion, but a secular philosophy. Voltaire had replaced the original understanding of God with Aristotle's Prime Mover, which science has discredited today.

The French Revolution was based on reason alone and led to only bloodshed and tyranny. Reason without an underpinning of God or a higher power leads only to ruin. To quote Noah Nissani:

Rationalism (is) an exaggerated faith in human logic...Unlike the Jacobean rationalism, represented by Voltaire, the chief Girondin ideologue Montesquieu, followed Aristotle's empirical method. He added to the research of around 150 regimes, which served as the basis for Aristotle's "Politics", another twenty years of study, with a team of assistants, for writing his book "The Spirit of the Laws" (1748).

Together with the Bible and the Greek philosophers, this book guided the founding fathers of the American Revolution in shaping the principles and institutions of the United States...

My goal here is to restore classical deism. So what is classical deism? Where does it really derive from? What can we learn about deism before the French stripped it to nothing that has any value today? That is what I'm seeking here and will be the subject of a number of videos. I'll ask the questions others won't want discussed. I'll view deism with same skepticism I use with revealed religions.


The Five Articles of Classical Deism

In England, Deism was critically concerned with the origins of religion, but positive in moral and religious affirmation. Early English Deists believed that the Bible contained important truths, but they rejected the concept that it was divinely inspired or inerrant. They were leaders in the study of the Bible as a historical (rather than an inspired, revealed) document. Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648) was one of the earliest proponents of Deism in England. In his book "De Veritate," (1624), he described the "Five Articles" of English Deists:

belief in the existence of a single supreme God
humanity's duty is to revere God
linkage of worship with practical morality
God will forgive us if we repent and abandon our sins
good works will be rewarded (and punishment for evil) both in life and after death.

Other views of God from antiquity:

Plato (c. 427-c. 347 B.C.) posited a "demiurge" of supreme wisdom and intelligence as the creator of the cosmos in his work Timaeus. For Plato, the demiurge lacked the supernatural ability to create "ex nihilo" or out of nothing. The demiurge was able only to organize the "ananke". The ananke was the only other co-existent element or presence in Plato's cosmogony. Plato's teleological perspective is also built upon the analysis of a priori order and structure in the world that he had already presented in The Republic.

Aristotle (c. 384-322 B.C.) also developed the idea of a creator of the cosmos, often referred to as the "Prime Mover" in his work Metaphysics. Aristotle's views have very strong aspects of a teleological argument, specifically that of a prime mover, who (so to speak) looks ahead in setting the cosmos into motion. Indeed, Aristotle argued that all nature reflects inherent purposiveness and direction.

Cicero (c. 106-c. 43 B.C.) also made one of the earliest known teleological arguments. In de Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) Cicero stated, "The divine power is to be found in a principle of reason that pervades the whole of nature". He was writing from the cultural background of the Roman religion. In Roman mythology the creator goddess, Gaia was borrowed from Greek mythology. The Romans called her Tellus or Terra.

(Note modern science has debunked both Plato and Aristotle, throwing the old deist' argument of a 'god that went away' into chaos. Christianity was derived from Greek philosophy in particular Plato.)

"When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?" (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, ii. 34)

Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) presented a classic teleological perspective in his work City of God. He describes the "city of man" and essentially posits that God's plan is to replace the city of man with the city of God (at some as-yet-unknown point in the future). Whether this is to happen gradually or suddenly is not made clear in Augustine's work.

He did not, however, make a formal argument for the existence of God; rather, God's existence is already presumed and Augustine is giving a proposed view of God's teleology. Augustine's perspective follows from and is built upon the neo-Platonic views of his era, which in turn have their original roots in Plato's cosmogony.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

According to www.history.com Thomas Paine was a hero of the American Revolution with his writing such as Common Sense. Paine really didn't understand the character of the American Revolution as opposed to the French Revolution. When he went to France he got a rude awakening.

When he arrived he was awarded honorary citizens and his book The Rights of Man and its anti-royalty theme was widely accepted. Yet when he questioned the murders and executions and other actions of these Enlightenment revolutionaries he was arrested on December 28,1793 for treason.

The jail he sat in was a joke being a converted palace. Luxembourg Prison even included servants and catered meals. During this time he wrote The Age of Reason some say to save deism, but instead became an anti-Christian screed. President James Monroe managed to get him out of prison and he returned to America.

He published The Age of Reason and became an outcast shunned by most of the Founding Fathers such as Washington for his attacks on Christianity. He failed to understand while those following English deism didn't believe in or rejected many parts of Christian theology, they were not hostile with Christians. He died a pauper in 1809.

Thomas Paine is the hero of the anti-religious deists of today. Most focus on his attacks on Christianity, but not what he really believed. Paine was a complex man and his Age of Reason I think is easily misunderstood. He seemed torn between the influences of the French Enlightenment versus the classical deism of Jefferson and Franklin. Quoting Paine,

"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life."

"The moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation toward all his creatures. That seeing, as we daily do, the goodness of God to all men, it is an example calling upon all men to practice the same toward each other."

"I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body" (Age of Reason).

"I consider myself in the hands of my Creator, and that he will dispose of me after this life consistently with his justice and goodness" (Private Thoughts on a Future State)

"We believe in the existence of a God, and in the immortality of the soul."

"Were man impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought to be with the belief of a God, his moral life would be regulated by the force of that belief; he would stand in awe of God and of himself, and would not do the thing that could not be concealed from either. ... This is Deism."



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